We asked four prominent and successful college volleyball coaches a series of questions about their coaching philosophies, routines, and influences. The following are the thoughtful responses we received from Kelly Sheffield, Head Women's Volleyball Coach at the University of Wisconsin; Keegan Cook, the new Head Women's Volleyball Coach at the University of Washington; Chris Johnson, Head Women's Volleyball Coach at Seattle Pacific University; and Steven Bain, Head Women's Volleyball Coach at Northwest University. We are so grateful for the time and thought these coaches put into their replies and hope you enjoy the interviews.
"The truest rewards of coaching will not be found within myself, but in the relationships forged, the character instilled, and the accomplishments made by the players and staff who join me on this journey."
-Keegan Cook, University of Washington
What is your philosophy of coaching and its relationship to education?
Steven Bain, Northwest University: “Coaching is teaching and the court just happens to be my classroom so I view the athletic experience of my players as an integral component of their college education. I also continually remind them that the primary reason they are at NU is to get an education and I want them to be as great in the classroom as they are on the court.”
Keegan Cook, University of Washington: “It’s about people - Relationships are at the heart of this profession. Trust, sacrifice, communication, and even conflict, are central to our jobs. Coaching is not a profession of sales, profit, or material pursuit, but rather a business focused on the qualities and quality of each and every person within a program. It’s about giving – The truest rewards of coaching will not be found within myself, but in the relationships forged, the character instilled, and the accomplishments made by the players and staff who join me on this journey. It’s about growth - No other job provides as rich an environment of learning and growth as coaching. Our academic institutions, and our volleyball programs are full of individuals who are feverishly pursuing not only improvement in their team’s performance, but (also) real growth in themselves. In my view, coaches and educators share the same vocation, and that is the calling to teach. Coaches teach motor skills, teamwork skills, leadership skills, amongst other skills. Educators teach similar skills, just in other fields of study. Both are vital to the development of young student-athletes.
Chris Johnson, Seattle Pacific University: “I try to think of myself as a teacher, and want to teach my players the best mechanics and strategies available to help them achieve at the highest level. In order to do this, I have to know what I believe the best mechanics to be, and why. I also need to have an understanding of the game itself in order to help my players understand the reasons behind the strategies we employ. All of this leads to my goal of having my players all look the same on the court (because they all use the same mechanics) and being able to play multiple positions because they understand the responsibilities of each. I also try to encourage my players as often as possible, and cultivate a positive atmosphere in our practices and in our program as a whole. Most of all, I want my players to have a fun, meaningful, and positive experience while playing volleyball at Seattle Pacific. “
Kelly Sheffield, University of Wisconsin: “Like a lot of things in life, you set goals and then you do everything you can to reach those goals. There are just so many things we learn by being involved in athletics and especially team athletics. How to push yourself to excel; taking care of your body; how to be a competitor; understanding that in the learning process you may need to go back one step in order to improve; learning to how to handle success and loss and maybe more importantly – adversity; how to manage your time as your demands are high; learning to trust others and being trustworthy yourself; and the pursuit in becoming more disciplined. We are in a learning laboratory for life and there are so many lessons that are learned throughout. Without question coaching and teaching go hand-and-hand.”
How do you feel about multiple sport athletes, especially youth (middle - high school)?
Keegan Cook, University of Washington: “I believe young athletes should be encouraged to participate in as many sports as they are interested in from a very young age for as long as it makes them happy. As athletes grow older and develop, they may begin to have aspirations and goals that require sacrifices such as focusing on fewer sports or eventually just one sport. It’s all about choices and what brings that athlete joy. I would, however, highly discourage an athlete from dropping a sport due to outside pressures or coaches/peers telling them what can and can’t be done in their own specific situation. When making any decision, be thoughtful about why you play the sport or sports you do, your goals and aspirations, and your commitments to your academics and family.”
Chris Johnson, Seattle Pacific University: “I have a lot of thoughts around this subject. I think a lot of people think there is a right way and a wrong way to expose youth to sport… I don’t. If a young person wants to only focus on one sport growing up because they love that sport, I see nothing wrong with that. If they want to play lots of different sports because they are curious about them or know they like a lot of different sports, there is nothing wrong with that either. The contention comes when the motivation is wrong… if a parent is pushing their child to only focus on one sport and putting pressure on them from a young age to earn a college scholarship, that can be problematic, especially if the child doesn’t like the sport that much, or even worse – they STOP loving the sport because they are no longer playing it for the right reasons. Sports are meant to be fun, and once athletes forget that, at any level, it becomes something else – a job, a means to an end, something to please a parent, or something else – but no longer fun. As far as results go, any athlete will get out of it what they put into it. The more mindful practice a person commits to playing basketball, the better basketball player they will become. This does not mean they will be a better volleyball player. Motor programs are specific to a sport, though I believe that one can apply what they have learned in one sport to another. For example, I have found that former dancers and gymnasts tend to have better awareness of their body’s positioning in space. This doesn’t mean someone who has danced for eight years can suddenly play volleyball, but it does tend to mean that they can learn new motor programs quickly, because they have learned how to learn. There are also inherent benefits that come from certain sports that can also be useful in others… swimming tends to build strong shoulders, which are helpful for volleyball players to have. Soccer exposes kids to the dynamics of working within a team toward a goal. There are lots of these examples, and there are benefits to playing any sport. So, I would just emphasize that the athlete should be enjoying whatever it is they are doing.“
Kelly Sheffield, University of Wisconsin: “I love multi-sport athletes! First of all, it’s important to develop overall athleticism, specialization doesn’t need to happen until much later – whether that’s later in your high school career or in college. I like the idea of young athletes trying a lot of different things. They usually become better athletes and have less overuse injuries. At some point, if you are going to play volleyball at a high level, players are going to have to focus on this sport in order to get the reps needed to play at a really high level. But when athletes are young, it’s more important to have fun, try different things, and become a better overall athlete. If you look at the players that have played in the past few Olympics, almost all of them were multi-sport athletes growing up!”
Steven Bain, Northwest University: “Studies have shown that participating in multiple sports can help prevent burnout, especially with younger players. However, as players become more skilled and ascend to higher levels of play their progress will require increased time commitments and specialization. So, whether we like it or not, Club and AAU sports are here to stay.”
Describe your typical pre-game and post-game locker room routine, and the thinking behind it.
Chris Johnson, Seattle Pacific University: “Pre-game, we review our scouting report and strategies on which weaknesses we want to attack (a certain defender, passer, etc.). Every once in a while, I might share an appropriate anecdote with the team to guide their thoughts or perspective, but I don’t talk a lot in pre-game, and I’m not a big rah-rah type of coach in the locker room before a match. I try to keep an even keel throughout game-day, including in the locker room before a match. I basically believe that if we have done the right things in practice and while reviewing film, and if my players’ motivation is coming from within, as it should be, then we will be prepared. After a match we are either celebrating a win or critiquing a loss. If we won, I’m usually (not always) cheering and excited, and reviewing what we did well and why it worked. I’ll also give shout-outs to some individuals who may have played particularly well or set personal or school records. If we lost, I still try to stay even-keeled (I very rarely yell at my players after a loss, or ever) and analyze where we came up short. If we won but played poorly, or lost but played well, we will discuss that as well. In any case, we want to have a realistic understanding of what happened so that we know which areas need the most improving prior to our next match.“
Kelly Sheffield, University of Wisconsin: “We want our players to be excited about playing. We work all week preparing for our opponents and getting ready to play our best at match time. I want them to trust their abilities and trust the work and plan that we put in for that match. My pre-game talk might last a couple of minutes. As for post-game, talks are not much longer, maybe 3-4 minutes. We’ll certainly celebrate a good win, especially if we felt like we played well. If we lose or play poorly, my comments are usually along the lines that we’ll look at the video, find ways to get better, and will work on those things in practice in the coming days. It’s never about yelling or finger pointing. Win or lose, it’s always about getting better and staying together.”
Steven Bain, Northwest University: “Our game day activities include a meal together as a team, as well as film and review of the game plan for our opponent. Immediately pre-game, one of the players will share a brief devotion and then I generally have a few things to say before we take the court. The thinking behind these activities is to first bring the team together as a ‘family,’ and then to focus our preparation on the things we need to do to be successful. Post-game comments are kept to the bare minimum. The reason (for this) is that emotions can be raw, and adrenaline can still be pumping after a match. So, to avoid saying things we might later regret, we will wait until the next day to reflect and discuss/list our ‘wishes and pluses.’”
Keegan Cook, University of Washington: “Our pre-game locker room routine should be just that, a consistent routine that both directly and indirectly reminds our team ‘we know what we need to do, we’ve done it before, and we are ready to perform.’ The coaching staff may review tactical material one last time, and remind the players of the tasks at hand. After that, the team takes a moment to connect in its own way and the fun begins! Post-game routines should be short, as we’ve just finished an emotional and competitive experience and need to rest before getting prepared for the next challenge immediately. I always like to remind our players to take a moment and thank those people who supported them at the event (families, fans, athletic trainers, etc.).”
What coaches, teacher or other people have been great influences in your life, and why or how?
Kelly Sheffield, University of Wisconsin: “Wow, too many to name them all. Certainly my parents and my wife, Cathy, along with my youth coaches, have all helped influence the type of person I’ve become and have helped shape my values. Growing up I played just about everything and was constantly watching sports in person or on TV. When I started coaching, I was surrounded by people who all had teaching backgrounds. In hindsight, that was important for me to be around since I never played volleyball. Learning from coaches who were great at breaking it down and communicating effectively wasn’t only important to those players that were playing the game but it was also important for this young coach who was just learning the game.”
Steven Bain, Northwest University: “My parents gave me the personal values (faith, integrity, honesty, love for others, etc.) and work ethic required to be successful in any endeavor. As much as anyone, Carl McGown is connected to everything I know I about the game of volleyball and instilled in me a great passion for lifelong learning.’”
Keegan Cook, University of Washington: “I’ve had a number of tremendous coaches who have been influences on my life. The three who immediately come to mind are: Dusty Collins (Foothill HS California), Rob Browning (Saint Mary’s College), and Jim McLaughlin (Notre Dame). All three of these men have three things in common: 1) they are completely devoted to their families; 2) they are highly respected amongst their players and peers; and 3) they bring tremendous enthusiasm and an element of service to their profession. I would not be coaching if it weren’t for the lessons taught to me by these three coaches.”
Chris Johnson, Seattle Pacific University: “I think servant leadership is best modeled by Jesus Christ, and my goal in life is to strive to be more like Him. Jim Zorn has been an important mentor for me, even though he played and coached football. When I was growing up, the Zorns went to our church while he was still playing for the Seahawks, and we have been family friends my whole life. He has given me great advice regarding how to talk to players (and be “brutally honest” when need be), and has also given me great career advice, as well. I also learned a lot from the Gold Medal Squared clinics at UW, primarily from Carl McGown and Jim McLaughlin. Their styles, philosophies, and communication have had a big influence on me.“
What is one word or phrase that you hope former players use to describe you?
Steven Bain, Northwest University: “I loved playing for Bain.”
Keegan Cook, University of Washington: “If I had to pick one word, it would be ‘sincere’.”
Chris Johnson, Seattle Pacific University: “I would want them to say that I cared about them as people first, and that I helped them improve as volleyball players.“
Kelly Sheffield, University of Wisconsin: “I wish I was someone who could package things into a single word or phrase. I want players to dream big, embrace challenges, be passionate about what they are doing, be willing to put the necessary work in, respond appropriately to adversity, and try and have a lot of fun together along the way. I hope that they know that I love them long after they are done playing for me. I hope that they realize that I’m here to help them reach their dreams, goals, and potential in life, and that I would do anything to help them on or off the court towards those pursuits.”
What are three things that your previous experiences in coaching have taught you?
Keegan Cook, University of Washington: “1) We (coaches, players, parents, fans) are all extremely lucky to be involved in the sport of volleyball. Maintaining this perspective and having humility are keys to overcoming all challenges, conflicts, and adversities that are bound to appear at every level of the sport. 2) No great victory is accomplished alone. It’s true in volleyball, and it’s true in life. 3) Simple things done well over long periods of time will result in great successes. We have to have the patience to accept that a good day brings us closer to success, even when we may want to have a great day every single time we step on the court. ”
Chris Johnson, Seattle Pacific University: “1) I need to be open to new ideas and thoughts, so that I know WHY we are doing what we are doing. 2) Open and honest communication between coaches and their athletes is of utmost importance. 3) In game 5, all bets are off!“
Kelly Sheffield, University of Wisconsin: “1) The train keeps moving. Wins and losses are not fatal or final. You always have to keep getting better. Whether that is in recruiting, the training you give your players, or how you find ways to communicate to people, you gotta keep plugging away. 2) Every day you have to have a consistent approach and consistent energy. Every single day you must ‘Bring It!’ 3) I can’t be afraid to let players know that I’m also having fun and enjoying the process and journey.”
Steven Bain, Northwest University: “Patience, perseverance, and the power of using our gifts to serve others.”